Photo courtesy of Portland Timbers/Robert Mora
By ADAM SERRANO
Darlington Nagbe is soft-spoken, one who prefers to allow his actions on the field speak for him. As the franchise's first draft pick, Nagbe's career will be eternally scrutinized by the Rose City faithful.
The former Akron standout was the second overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft and wasted no time fueling the hype by scoring the Timbers' first goal this preseason, albeit in a competitive scrimmage. Confident up front or along the wings, Nagbe is still searching for where he will be most effective for the Timbers, but he believes that he can find success in MLS no matter where he plays.
"I feel like I’m doing pretty well. I can definitely do better, definitely contribute more, but so far it’s been going pretty well," Nagbe said. "I'm obviously a shy guy, but I’m doing the best I can, I feel like, and the guys have been great also, so I think everything’s coming along great so far."
Nagbe immediately made an impact in a Timbers kit with the club's first goal in their initial scrimmage of 2011 against PDL side Ventura County Fusion. The reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner connected on an opportunistic header off an in-swinging cross and buried it into the top right corner of the net. He later impressed in a scrimmage last week against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Starting at forward and rotating to the wings, he frequently challenged a Galaxy unit that ranked as one of the top backlines in MLS in 2010.
In the match against the Galaxy, Nagbe looked the most dangerous while streaking down the left side, looking quite mature for his age as he tested the experienced defenders. However, the youngster recieved his welcome-to-MLS moment when he lined up against players that towered over him. Facing off against 6-foot-5, 210-pound defender Omar Gonzalez, the 5-foot-9 foot forward admitted that it was a shock to face players of that size, and he said that he'll have to transition to the faster tempo of the game.
"[The speed of play] is definitely faster, so there's no time on the ball. Once you get it, you have to play it quick or go into the space and try and get rid of it, but I feel like I'm handling it okay," Nagbe said. "I'm still starting fresh, but obviously this is a different speed and a whole different level. At Akron we played a whole different style than MLS does, but then again it was college soccer and this is professional."
The story of the Liberian-born attacker begins with his father Joe, the longtime captain of the Liberian national team and veteran of the French league. He was instrumental in teaching his son, who was able to draw immediate accolades during his three years at Akron.
Nagbe was thought be a surefire first-overall pick until the Vancouver Whitecaps selected Omar Salgado. It was a surprise that caught many off guard, but overjoyed the Timbers' technical staff.
Timbers head coach John Spencer was in Santa Barbara, Calif., when Nagbe helped the Zips win their first NCAA title. Nagbe didn't score at the College Cup, but he was instrumental in providing service to the attack. He showed a high level of maturity, dropping back to link up between attackers when his own finishing was less than accurate. It was in Santa Barbara that Spencer saw a player that he wanted to build his new Timbers team around.
After the scrimmage against the Galaxy, the Timbers head coach was full of praise for his young forward.
"It’s up to us right now to try and find what his best position is in a professional game. Obviously playing a college game is a totally different game than coming up against guys like Omar Gonzalez," Spencer saidr. "The kid’s got natural talent, great feet, great awareness and vision, and we just need to be a little bit easier with him at the moment and not push him too much."
There are still many questions for Nagbe, but that hasn't stopped some from labeling him as a potential Rookie of the Year front-runner before the start of the season. The ever-modest Nagbe admits that it's all idle talk until the season starts, and in the meantime, he has come to embrace his new city and its rich soccer culture.
"I heard it’s a great soccer city and all the fans there love soccer. Everyone’s excited about the first game and seeing us play as a team," Nagbe said. "But I haven’t done anything yet so far, it’s only preseason so we’ll see."